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How Did Women’s History Month Come About?

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  • NoteThis article was first published in 2002.

    This year's celebration of International Women's Day on March 8th testified to the historical resilience of feminism. Once observed largely in socialist countries, the annual holiday commemorates the women factory workers of a century ago who demonstrated for decent wages and working conditions. In the past generation it has taken root in the U.S. as part of"Women's History Month," when school children learn about past heroines--whether workers, mothers, artists, or activists. As befits what is now a global movement, a coalition of organizations chose this year's celebration to publicize Afghan women's campaign for education, health care, and full human rights in the post-Taliban era. Their slogan,"Afghanistan is Everywhere," reminds us that at home, as abroad, women's quest for equal rights remains critical to us all.

    Women's history month provides an occasion to take stock of the deep currents that have propelled feminist movements over the past two centuries. Feminism emerges wherever market economies draw women into wage labor forces and democratic ideals instill desires for full citizenship. These historical conditions first appeared after 1800, stimulating calls for women's rights in western Europe and North America. As more and more women earned wages and sought suffrage, the distinction between a private, female domestic sphere and a public, male arena diminished. In the past century, as their labor became critical to industrial economies throughout the world, women gained both legal rights and political representation.

    Since World War II, the unifying forces of economic globalization and democratization have fueled feminist organizing far beyond the West. Whether linked to anti-colonial democratic movements or spurred by women's role in economic development, the goal of female empowerment has inspired contemporary organizations as widespread as Women in Law and Development in Africa, the National Black Women's Health Project in the U.S. and Caribbean, and the Self-Employed Women's Association in India. Indeed, only anti-democratic regimes, such as the Taliban, can suppress feminism, and then only by shutting themselves off from the rest of the world, and not with entire success. For the positive fate of the democratic world-its health, its prosperity, its political values-depends on women's full participation. Whether in Afghanistan or in the United States, any society that denies women's economic and political rights leaves the democratic promise unfulfilled.

    International Women's Day had fresh meaning this year, with images of Afghan women emerging from the burkah vividly illustrating the crumbling of extreme patriarchal power. This year we honored the recent heroines who defied the Taliban by teaching girls to read in their homes and by providing underground medical services to women. These Afghan women, like those who met in Brussels in December to insist on a voice in their own futures, are not alone. They join an historical momentum that has swelled over the past two centuries and has now reached a point of no return. From the North American workers who refuse to endure sexual harassment to the mothers around the world who insist on equal education for their daughters and the international activists who seek to outlaw all forms of sexual violence, women are extending democracy in the workplace, the home, and the state. On March 8th we paid our deep respects to all of these women, but every day of the year they deserve our moral and political support.